Hussein Ibish

A patronizing narrative pigeonholes Arabs

A dominant but highly misleading narrative about the Arab world has taken root not only in the Middle East but also in some parts of the West. This perspective assumes the inexorable rise of Islamist parties and is impervious to contradictory evidence. The recent Libyan parliamentary elections have provided the starkest example of a contrary development.
It is now officially established, and highly significant, that the non-Islamist National Forces Alliance led by Mahmoud Jibril trounced Libyan Islamists, particularly in that portion of the voting process reserved for party lists. The separate results for individual candidates are not yet fully clear, but the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood says it will probably win only between 15 and 20 out of 120 individual seats.
This result was not widely anticipated, to say the least. But what is even more surprising than the outcome has been the reaction to it. The Western commentariat in particular has, with a few notable exceptions, largely reacted to the emerging electoral outcomes in Libya with disinterest, or even in a dismissive way.
The prevailing view remains that Islamists have nearly unassailable appeal at the present moment in Arab elections, and that the Libyan result is an exception that does not challenge that rule. Because Libya cannot be easily reconciled with the conventional wisdom, commentators have been engaging in extraordinary rhetorical contortions to protect their views from highly inconvenient facts.
For instance, columnist Charles Krauthammer, writing in the Washington Post, observed, despite the Libyan results, that what is taking place in the region is “an Islamist ascendancy, likely to dominate Arab politics for a generation.”
There is no doubt that Islamist parties will be major factors in the coming decades. But what Jibril’s victory demonstrates is that the “Islamist ascendancy” is by no means assured or even likely. There is an overpowering assumption, shared by voices on the left, right and center, that Arab politics are relatively homogenous across different states, and this is simply mistaken, even patronizing.
But the varying results in the recent Egyptian, Tunisian and Libyan elections show otherwise. Firmness in sticking to this reductive perspective, despite the evidence of political diversity, is sometimes ideologically driven. However, in many cases it is simply an effort to embrace a comfortable narrative that simplifies a far more complex reality.
A second tactic in challenging the Libyan exception has been to suggest that, while Jibril’s alliance is not Islamist, it is also neither secular nor liberal in the Western sense. Those holding this view extrapolate from this that there is little difference between Jibril’s position and that of Islamists. Such an argument ignores the all-important gap between Libyans who are devout and those who would seek to make religion the centerpiece of politics and national life.
The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, by contrast, is well aware of this dissimilarity. It has complained that Jibril and his allies don’t agree that “government must enforce Islam in every aspect of its work.” The main aim of the Brotherhood since its founding has been to erase all distinctions between Islam and Islamism, and between Muslims and the Muslim Brotherhood. The argument that Jibril’s coalition is no different than the Islamists only plays into the Brotherhood’s hands in an indefensible manner.
A third argument is that Libya is fundamentally different than the rest of the Arab world because of the legacy of Moammar al-Qaddafi, therefore that the elections mean little. Using this logic, no election results can be said to have regional significance. And if that’s true for one state, surely it’s true for all. But Arab societies are unique. Even the contiguous states of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are very different.
Fourth, it has been said that the Libyan results are regional and tribal in their consequences, rather than ideological. Islamism may have been defeated but, as troubling, tribalism has triumphed. However, the results of party voting were strikingly consistent throughout most of the country, which indicates otherwise. There is little evidence that this was primarily a tribal or regional vote, though Jibril’s belonging to the country’s largest tribe, the Warfala, certainly didn’t hurt him.
Imagine if Libya’s Islamists had won a decisive victory. We would have heard that this was more evidence of the ineluctable spread of Islamism in post-dictatorship Arab societies. How, then, can the Islamists’ defeat be anything but powerful evidence to the contrary?
Libya shows that Islamists can be defeated in contemporary Arab elections, and this should be celebrated and emulated, not ignored or dismissed. Worse, when the evidence is employed to derive conclusions in utter contradiction with observable reality, then the model that produces such distortions should be dispensed with as utterly inadequate.

Hussein Ibish writes frequently about Middle Eastern affairs for numerous publications in the United States and the Arab world. He blogs at www.Ibishblog.com.

  • Rosie

    A good analysis but maybe shouldn't put all 'west' in a pigeon hole neither. Many were pleased about Libya and also, there WERE lots of signs that the future would be islamist. We did see the pragmatism of the voters who chose the best person for their concerns. Libya had a longer transition stage, it also had a far bigger war and loss, and libyans seem to be far better educated and wealthier in relation to Egypt. Tunisians didn't all vote, and might not choose the same next time. After decades of dictatorships, people have to learn what is real democracy and freedoms and basic human rights etc. That's what is interesting and I hope sectarianism and religious fanatism will die down and people get to grips with economy and building solid non corrupt societies.

    July 19, 2012

  • Pierre Nofal

    Refreshing article and to the point. Reminds me of Egypt of the 50's and how hard the Western world worked to trap this country's path to modernization and destabilize it. It seems that for the West, no liberal Arab is good, except the conservative Arabs. No wonders the Saoudis are the US best friends...

    July 18, 2012

  • What planet this guy on?!

    I wish the writer would define his terms - what exactly, precisely does "Islamist" mean in this article?

    July 18, 2012

  • Firouz

    Ibish kind of misses the point. The Islamists in Libya were not defeated by a liberal. They were defeated by a kind of Syrian/Iraqi Baathist-style fascist. This is a total replay of the Arab 50s and 60s, when the fascists defeated the marxists and the islamists. Yes, Fascism can get elected in Arab world, sometimes trumping Islamism. But this is not liberalism, and to pretend otherwise is pure propaganda, or folly.

    July 18, 2012